MERS: South Korea Places More Than 1,300 People Under Quarantine as Virus Spreads

5 Things to Know About MERS

1.It belongs to the same family of viruses as the common cold and SARS
In 2002 and 2003, Hong Kong and southern China were crippled by an outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory disease, which eventually killed more than 750 people and infected thousands. MERS is a similar disease that was confirmed in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Since then, it has infected 1,154 people and claimed at least 434 lives, according to the World Health Organization. There is no known cure for MERS, and the origins and transmission of the virus are unknown.

2.Though it originated in the Middle East, it has spread globally
Since the disease was first identified in Saudi Arabia, it has spread around the world, thanks in part to the increasingly global nature of travel. Though the bulk of MERS victims have been in the Middle East, the disease first reached Southeast Asia last April, when a Malaysian man took a pilgrimage to the Saudi holy Muslim city of Mecca. During the trip, he visited a Saudi camel farm. Camels are one host for the virus.

3.It arrived in South Korea two weeks ago
On May 20, South Korea’s Health Ministry confirmed its first case of MERS in a 68-year-old man who had traveled to Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for about three weeks, according to officials. Since then, the unidentified man’s wife and others who have come into contact with the patient have been infected. Of the total 25 cases of infection confirmed by South Korea, the first two victims died Tuesday, officials said.

4. South Korean officials are weighing further measures
Health officials in South Korea have yet to declare an epidemic. They are, however, weighing an overseas travel ban for nearly 700 people who have been isolated for possible infection from the virus. There are mounting concerns that the disease may be spreading even among people who haven’t had any direct contact with the initial patient.

5.South Korea’s MERS problem may be spreading
Hong Kong, the epicenter of the SARS epidemic, is on high alert after a South Korean man who was confirmed to have the MERS virus — the son of a hospital roommate of the first patient — traveled there. Authorities in the Chinese special administrative region are quarantining 19 people and keeping a close eye on 27 other travelers who may have had contact with the man. Authorities also are taking precautions at the airport and border crossings. Inbound travelers who have recently visited medical facilities in Seoul and show respiratory symptoms or a fever will be treated as suspected MERS cases and sent to hospitals for isolation until they test negative for the virus. The measures also extend to arrivals who have recently been to the Middle East.

– 2 people dead
– 30 confirmed cases
– 1,364 people isolated
– 209 schools closed


A MERS outbreak in South Korea — the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease first emerged in 2012 — is likely to grow, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has infected at least 25 people in South Korea and killed two, according to the World Health Organization.

Doctors have diagnosed five new cases not yet confirmed by the WHO, bringing the total to 30 cases, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who is in contact with South Korean doctors who are treating the patients.

South Korean officials have isolated 680 people to limit the spread of the disease, which spreads when sick people cough.

There have been at least 1,154 lab-confirmed cases of MERS worldwide since 2012, along with 431 deaths — a mortality rate of 37%.

MERS belongs to the same family of viruses as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was identified in 2003. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first MERS case in South Korea, confirmed May 20, was in a 68-year-old man who had traveled to four Middle Eastern countries. He developed symptoms May 11 and sought care at two outpatient clinics and two hospitals, the WHO said.

Doctors didn’t isolate the man because he didn’t report exposure to MERS, the WHO said. He was exposed to a number of medical staff and hospital patients, as well as their family members and visitors. Health officials are seeking more information about how he was exposed during his Middle Eastern travels, the WHO said.

The patient infected some patients in the same room, as well as others on the same ward of the hospitals. Some patients became infected after being exposed to the man for as little as five minutes, the WHO said.

Other patients may have spread the virus at other hospitals before they were diagnosed.

The first MERS patient in South Korea shared a hospital ward with a 35-year-old man whose son had tuberculosis and who was taking medication to prevent infection. That man developed a fever after being discharged. He visited two hospitals and was given antibiotics by staff who probably assumed his symptoms were caused by tuberculosis, said Daniel Lucey, an adjunct professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center. That man then visited the hospital again, where he was isolated.

Another man infected with MERS in South Korea traveled to China on May 26, against his doctor’s orders, and was diagnosed a hospital in that country three days later. The man had symptoms of MERS during his travel, the WHO said.

South Korea’s Ministry of Health confirmed that there have been three generations of MERS spread — from the initial patient to a second patient and then to a third patient with no contact with the original patient.

Given how many people were exposed, “further cases can be expected,” the WHO said in a statement. People are more likely to spread the disease when they are very sick and coughing more, Osterholm said.

The first MERS case in the United States, a health professional who had traveled to Saudi Arabia, was diagnosed in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors have long known that coronaviruses such as MERS spread easily in hospitals, Osterholm said. Hospitals helped to spread the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, as sick patients waited in crowded emergency departments, Osterholm said.

The current South Korean outbreak underscores the need to develop a vaccine against MERS, said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

There’s a lot that doctors don’t know about coronaviruses, such as why some people appear so much more contagious than others. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, doctors called highly infectious people “super spreaders” because they infected dozens of people. Other patients, however, never infect anyone. “These people may have more of the virus, or their coughs may be more efficient at spreading it,” Osterholm said.

Osterholm notes that it’s difficult to tell if the South Korean outbreak is spreading any more quickly than usual. In past outbreaks in Saudi Arabia, world health officials often received information long after patients had been treated.

South Korean officials have been quick to notify international authorities of new developments, allowing people to follow the outbreak “in real time,” Osterholm said.

“There is a lot more transparency here than on the Arabian peninsula,” Osterholm said.

Because South Korea has an advanced medical system, it is better positioned to contain the MERS outbreak than developing nations, Osterholm said.

“The fact that MERS has spread around the world is not surprising,” Osterholm said. “The question is, ‘Where is it going to spread to next?’ It could very easily come to America. Very easily. Any flight could contain someone who was infected in the Middle East.”

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Maddy Taylor

Journalist and fact checker at The Pluto Daily. University of Miami Ohio alumni class of '09!